SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The doomsday scenario of militants allied to al Qaeda gaining control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has only a vanishingly small possibility of ever happening. But the more realistic risks are scary enough.
Analysts say that while the Taliban has almost no chance of ever being in a position to launch a nuclear warhead, there is a real danger militants could exploit chaos in Pakistan to hijack or steal enough radioactive material to build the kind of device long feared by counterterrorist officials — a dirty bomb. U.S. and allied officials have expressed mounting concern over what would happen to Pakistan’s warheads if the country lurched further into chaos and the Taliban came closer to seizing power.
“The collapse of Pakistan, al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons, an extremist takeover — that would dwarf everything we’ve seen in the war on terror,” David Kilcullen, an Australian anti-insurgency expert and adviser to U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus, warned earlier this year.
But most analysts say the Taliban is nowhere near able to mount a serious power grab across Pakistan. And even if they seized an area where warheads were stored, the nuclear command system would make it almost impossible to launch one.
“I don’t think there is any risk whatsoever of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of dangerous radical Islamic elements for the foreseeable future,” said Alastair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura in London.
Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the Non-proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the military was “the one institution that actually works well in Pakistan” and would step in if necessary to prevent the country sliding into chaos.
Maria Kuusisto, analyst at Eurasia Group in London, said nuclear security had improved significantly since 2001.
“To hijack a nuclear weapon in a conventional way, either stealing it or getting access to the nuclear command, is going to be very difficult,” Kuusisto said. “There are concerns, but the concerns are more nuanced than the headlines would suggest.”
Two scenarios are particularly worrying, analysts say.
If the Taliban encroached close to an area where warheads are stored, the military may feel it needs to try to move them — and the convoy could be vulnerable to capture.
“The Pakistani military say their procedures for moving nuclear weapons are very well thought out, but that is always a weak point, moving your nuclear assets,” Kuusisto said.
The second, and likelier, scenario would be that despite the vetting procedures in place, Taliban or al Qaeda sympathizers managed to get employed in a nuclear facility and were able to steal enriched uranium or other radioactive material.
Vetting of personnel can never be foolproof.
“What chills me is that the military says personnel assigned to sensitive nuclear facilities are all vetted by the Pakistan intelligence service,” said Steve Vickers, president and chief executive of FTI-International Risk and a former head of criminal intelligence for the Hong Kong police.
“I don’t think anyone would say Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are 100 percent secure,” Vickers said. The ISI intelligence service was instrumental in creating the Taliban and is widely thought to contain factions sympathetic to militants.
Fitzpatrick of the IISS non-proliferation programme said the risk of theft of fissile material was the biggest worry in Pakistan. “It is certainly conceivable,” he said.
Analysts noted that Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan had played a key role in the transfer of nuclear technology to rogue states. Khan was freed from house arrest in February by the current government and is widely viewed as a national hero.
Al Qaeda is known to be actively seeking nuclear material. Pakistan could be the place they finally manage to acquire some.
“It’s not going to be a risk where rogue elements take over Pakistan’s nuclear assets and then launch them at India or launch them at the U.S.,” Kuusisto said. “It will be a radiological bomb exploding somewhere that is traced back to Pakistan.”
The United States has given Pakistan assistance in checking containers leaving from key ports for radioactive material. But Vickers said smuggling radioactive material out of the country would not present a major problem for militants.
“It is very difficult to secure the borders,” he said.
Kuusisto noted Pakistan is a key transit point in the international drugs trade. “If heroin can flow out I am not too convinced that nuclear material cannot flow out,” she said. “There are plenty of land routes, there are plenty of options.”
A dirty bomb does not require major technical know-how — essentially it is a conventional bomb with radioactive material added so that besides the damage from the blast, a large area is also contaminated by potentially deadly radiation.
Several analyses suggest it would be difficult to build a dirty bomb radioactive enough to cause a large number of deaths.
But it is a weapon that could cause huge disruption due to the potential of long-term contamination — particularly if it was used to target a key node in the highly interconnected modern global economy, such as a key port or major financial district.
And even the announcement a militant group had acquired fissile material could cause widespread panic and disruption.
“The major threat from terrorism stems from the risk of one or more major attacks on fragile nodes in the international system with large conflation effects,” the World Economic Forum said in an analysis of the top global risks.
“Over the longer term, there is a moderate risk of such an event, with very high human, political and economic consequences.